Beginning Butler's Birding

Be forewarned, I don't really like talking about myself in an expository way, so this is the one place I'll indulge for a little while, since everyone, myself included, likes a good 'origins' story, from Genesis on down to St. Nicholas.

I started birding when I was still a fledgling, but these years were spent doing it very poorly, without much method or development. Pops had been interested in birds and birding for a while before I really started paying attention. As a pilot and lifelong appreciator of aviation, it must’ve come naturally to him. The frequent traveling also lead to birding in different parts of the country, even though I scarcely could navigate a field guide and hardly appreciated the opportunity. We had some great family trips in Florida, California, and even Hawaii, but I was usually preoccupied looking for snakes or frogs. My appreciation of birds took a huge leap forward when we took a trip to upstate New York. I was probably 15 at the time, and we went on a trek through a Montezuma Wildlife Preserve near the Finger Lakes. Pops pointed out a female grosbeak looking rather brown and lonely on an outstretched tree branch. He set off after some Cerulean warblers in the distance, but for some reason I decided to sit and watch the grosbeak. No sooner had I plopped down then the handsome male Rose-breasted flew in and let out his song. It was totally stunning. He was big, beautiful, and unmistakable, even though I didn't know such a bird existed at the time. I was pretty well hooked from then on, which means I've been birding casually for about 10 years, 4 years more seriously. I haven't been diligent with lists or recorded sightings until recently though, and keeping a blog along with photographs helps to that effect.

On average I bird two times a week, 1-2 times during the weekend and once during the week around town if I can. I'm right in the middle of Phoenix, so my non-holiday birding options are somewhat limited until summer, plut nice stuff still comes through Maricopa County. In fact, for overall diversity, it's pretty strong. There are many good birding spots within a 2 hour drive from the city, and even greater spots another hour away in the Santa Ritas and Huachuca Mountains. It is a hot and dusty process, but I'm slowly inching my way towards seeing all of Arizona's resident/partial-resident birds.

As the lists have grown, it gets more difficult to find new birds closer to home. I've made many the injudicious weekend trip, and a few imprudent twitches after rare birds as well. I'm pretty impatient with my birding, and I often romp around and chase after the birds more than I should. It's harder to sit and wait for the birds in the desert, I think, since the surrounding scenery is not always as beautiful as in other locations. So, as a birder (and as a bird), I'd describe myself as a Bumbling Gawker.

Enough about that. What is the best sighting? That's usually a good, general question. In addition to the Rose-breasted Grosbeak giving me the addiction, I also saw a pileated woodpecker attack an iguana in Belize (in a territorial fashion), which was pretty awesome. When I was climbing some bluffs near Florence, CO, I also saw an amazing display of raptorial dexterity. While climbing atop one of the higher plateaus, I saw a buteo hovering maybe another 200 feet in the air. It was riding the thermals quite contentedly, but was soon swarmed by a conspiracy of crows. I watched this mystery buteo endure their harrying swoops for several minutes without much reaction, wondering why raptors put up with this sort of disrespect. Then, quite unexpectedly, the bird flapped its wings with one great lunge and turned with its momentum over to its back, talons now facing the approaching crow. This barrel roll caught the crow completely by surprise, and it was already committed to the attack. The hawk made one clean, precise swipe before continuing in its barrel-roll so that it was again right side up. With the occasional feeble flap, the smitten crow plummeted towards the earth. Like a WWII plane with its tail on fire, the bird spiraled down, strings of viscera visibly trailing and flailing in its wake as the crow disappeared into the canyon. The conspiracy was over. The other crows got the heck out of there, and the hawk resumed soaring over its domain.
Once, while living in a trashy apartment complex in Dallas, TX, I saw a Yellow-crowned Nightheron pull a massive crawfish out of the local fishpond. The crawfish was too big to eat, and after thrashing around for a bit, the heron just left it by my bench. Obviously I took the crawfish home and ate it with garlic butter sauce. There was much pomp and circumstance. How many people get to eat seafood that was fresh-caught by a night heron? That could be a new and expensive restaurant concept…

For the most part, it's always nice to encounter other birders during my excursions. Swapping stories, recommendations, and sharing company can build up any experience, and is often invaluable for a younger birder such as myself. However, it can be bothersome when people are just looking for an excuse to boast about their life lists or diseminate their haughty opinions on other birders or birding behavior. The eagerness among birders to share their wisdom and experiences can sometimes slip into condescension, or at least come off that way. The study of birders and their social skills is it's own subject, one on which many the psychologist has gone mad trying to typify.
Outside of birding, I love soccer and try to play as much as possible.
Let's put an embarassing experience in here too. I once observed a large black vulture flying high in the distance, probably for a good 3 or 4 seconds, before realizing it was actually a garbage bag.

How about the ol' Favorite Bird or, more answerably, which species would I become if I had Animorph powers? This is a difficult question for which I still don’t have a complete answer. Of course, being a raptor at the top of the food chain would be pretty nice. Soaring high and eating meat seems much more illustrious than living as a grackle or gull. Herons seem to have it pretty good though too. They have a much more plentiful/consistent food supply and little to fear from predators. They really get to take life slow, speding their time snoozing and casually hunting when it suits them. There are also the swifts and the swallows. I sure would love to have that sort of speed and in-flight dexterity. I may not be able to ever pick a favorite until I've tried them all. Maybe I'd be an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, and instantly endear myself to birders all across North America…